The big tobacco industry is causing the COVID-19 pandemic as countries struggle to respond – global issues

  • Opinion Written by Jenny Lynn Reyes (Bangkok, Thailand)
  • Interpress service

In the mix, COVID-19 hasn’t affected the profits of the big tobacco companies because it has exploited the pandemic and convinced governments to treat cigarettes as “essential,” accept their charity, get perks like tax credits and better handle new tobacco products. These were the main results of the Asian tobacco industry’s 2021 intervention index.

Although many countries in Asia, a target for Big Tobacco to grow their business, are already refusing to give gifts from the tobacco industry, leading health and unhealthy companies fell prey to CSR activities at the height of the pandemic. The industry has distributed emergency medical equipment, hospital supplies, cash and food aid in areas under lockdown.

As many governments restricted the movement of non-essential tobacco to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the governments of Bangladesh and the Philippines succumbed to industry pressure and exempted the manufacture and sale of tobacco products.

In Bangladesh, British American Tobacco and Japan Tobacco International have received special permission from business-friendly departments to continue purchasing tobacco leaf, manufacturing and distributing manufactured goods while the country was under a nationwide lockdown.

The Philippines classified tobacco as nonessential and restricted its transport and delivery in areas under lockdown in March 2020, but eventually Lifted She declared that the tobacco industry could operate fully in areas under general community quarantine.

The Asian Index shows that although almost all countries included in the report are parties to the World Health Treaty, and the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), many governments still consider the business of the tobacco industry to be financially beneficial even at the expense of public health.

In Thailand, the date for abolishing the two-tiered passive cigarette tax rate has also been extended by another year, while in India, Korea, Malaysia and Nepal, no tax increase has been announced for 2021.

In Indonesia, the government relaxed the tobacco excise tax system by extending the payment deadline, allowing the industry to sell at old market prices, depriving the government of additional revenue, and continuing to use tobacco rather than discourage it.

In Japan, where cigarette tax rates are already low, Big Tobacco’s hot tobacco products are taxed less. Similarly, in the Philippines, the indirect tax rate on vaping products is much lower than that of cigarettes.

The index measures industry involvement in 19 Asian countries and ranks governments according to their efforts to protect public policies. While a few countries showed marginal progress, many showed a deterioration in addressing the impact of the tobacco industry, primarily due to more aggressive tactics in the industry that benefited from the COVID-19 situation.

Main results:

  • There is still a need for preventive measures in tobacco control. Eight (8) countries are still not protected from the influence of the tobacco industry, while other countries still have room to strengthen enforcement of their protection measures.
  • The tobacco industry continued to rebuild its image through corporate social responsibility activities. The tobacco industry targets socially and economically vulnerable groups as CSR beneficiaries to separate the company’s image from its toxic products and irresponsible business practices. Brunei, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Maldives, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal and Thailand have banned these activities as bogus charities.
  • The tobacco industry enjoys government benefits such as exemption from fees, tax breaks, and subsidies. This government has been denied potential revenue for pandemic response or social services.
  • Even when most social events and physical gatherings were banned, many government officials unnecessarily interacted with the tobacco industry.
  • There is a systematic lack of transparency in disclosure of government interactions with the tobacco industry. No country has a record of publicly disclosing the organizations, individuals, or lobbyists of the tobacco industry working on their behalf.

There is hope with some governments moving to protect public policy from the undue influence of the tobacco industry, such as India, which has adopted its Ministry of Health and Family Welfare behavioral rules to its officials when dealing with the tobacco industry.

Cambodia’s Ministry of Education has also introduced tobacco-free policies in educational facilities and banned any sponsorship or cooperation with the tobacco industry.

Although COVID-19 numbers have now exceeded 250 million infections and 5 million deaths globally, tobacco still kills 8 million people annually. As the pandemic continues, Big Tobacco continues to expand its business simultaneously.

Philip Morris International reported pre-tax earnings of about $11 billion for 2020, while British American Tobacco reported revenue of about $12 billion, primarily from cigarette sales. These numbers are far more than poor countries’ health budgets and what they spend on tackling the pandemic.

Governments should strengthen their efforts to protect public health policy in the spirit of anti-corruption and good governance, as civil society continues to play its role to monitor, detect and eliminate this harmful industry and its products.

Jenny Lynn Reyes He is the author of the 2021 Asian Tobacco Industry Overlap Index and Director of Monitoring and Evaluation at SEATCA

About SiatkaSyatka is a non-governmental, multi-sectoral alliance that works to advance health and save lives by helping ASEAN countries accelerate and implement the tobacco control measures contained in the WHO FCTC. Recognized by governments, academic institutions and civil society for advancing tobacco control in Southeast Asia, WHO awarded SEATCA the World No Tobacco Day Award in 2004 and the WHO Director-General’s Special Recognition Award in 2014.


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